Kasturba, on her own terms
Mohandas described his departure for London: “…Last but not least, came the leave-taking with my wife. It being contrary to custom for me to see or talk to her in the presence of friends, I had to see her in a separate room.Updated: Sep 17, 2019 13:10 IST
How many years have we been married?” she asked her husband. The short answer was 62, but Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi asked if she wished to celebrate the anniversary. There was general laughter around them at this exchange.
But not without a tinge of anxiety.
Kasturba was gravely ill . This was in 1944 and they were both prisoners at the Aga Khan Palace, in what was then Poona. He had been arrested within hours of his call on August 8, 1942, at the iconic rally in Bombay’s Gowalia tank: “…Freedom has to come not tomorrow but today. I have therefore pledged... do or die”.
Ba had been arrested almost immediately after for announcing that she would address a public meeting that her husband was to have spoken at. She, too, was moved to the Aga Khan Palace as a prisoner. Her thoughts had wandered that day to the Porbandar of 1882 when she was married to the man with whom she was now imprisoned. Both were turning 75.
“I do not think it meant to me anything more,” Gandhi writes in his autobiography of their marriage, “than the prospect of good clothes to wear, drum-beating, marriage and processions, rich dinners and — a strange girl to play with.” The groom could not have been, to use a contemporary phrase, more wrong.
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Kastur was to be no playmate. She was her own self. Almost from the word go. Almost, because on the first night that they were together, alone, Gandhi writes they were both “too nervous to face each other…certainly too shy.” But soon enough all coyness was to vanish in both. Mohandas says he became “passionately fond of her…the thought of nightfall and our consequent meeting…ever haunting me.” He could not bear her being away. And she, Kastur, could not bear being house-bound or husband-bound. She was just simply, her own thing. The boy-man was riled. He told her “…she could not go anywhere without my permission”. However, Gandhi writes in The Story of My Experiments with Truth, “She made it a point to go whenever and wherever she liked.”
Her independence was only one part of the story. General gutsiness was the other. The boy-husband “did not dare stir out of doors at night,” while the girl-wife, he writes, “knew no fear of serpents and ghosts” and “could go out anywhere in the dark”. But somewhere, through the tides of his overpowering love of her, the young woman soon enough began to see in her restless husband the unusual man she was married to and whose child, at 16, she was bearing. The “poor mite” as Gandhi describes their first born, was not to live.
Her second conception presented the two of them with their first son, Harilal, in 1888 — a matter of joy in both their households. But it also coincided with another major development: Mohandas’s desire to go to London to become a barrister. The 19-year-old’s application for a grant from Porbandar state having been turned down, Gandhi had to seek a loan and sell family jewellery. And what did family jewellery mean? In the honest and modest home of former Dewan Karamchand Gandhi, nothing else than the jewels in Kastur’s portion.
So, the seed money for Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s legal study, which made him a barrister and the man who would then go to South Africa and become all that he became, came from the sale of the jewels of that unlettered daughter of Kathiawar.
Mohandas described his departure for London: “…Last but not least, came the leave-taking with my wife. It being contrary to custom for me to see or talk to her in the presence of friends, I had to see her in a separate room. She, of course, had begun sobbing long before. I went to see her and stood like a dumb statue for a moment. I kissed her, and she said ‘Don’t go’. What followed I need not describe.”
What “followed” was a man of destiny following the first of his many instincts, doing what he felt impelled to do and leaving Kastur to accept his decision.
There is no record to show that Gandhi wrote to Kasturba in all of the years that he spent in London. That, perhaps, would have been counted as contrary to custom.
Be that as it may, when the barrister turned into an inspired and inspiring activist in South Africa, he lost no time in inducting her into his rhythms of life and work for Indian South Africans’ rights. And, we may add, in augmenting his family by three more sons, two of them born in Durban.
Acquiring a small vocabulary in English, Kastur mingled in the variegated community of Indian South Africans. When the Gandhis were returning to India after what seemed like a moment of closure to his campaigns — incorrectly as it turned out— Gandhi tells us the Indian community and clients hosted farewells and loaded them with gifts like a gold necklace for Kastur, gold watches, and diamond rings, among other things. On the day the bulk of these were received, Gandhi drafted a letter placing all of it, worth hundreds of pounds, in a trust for the community. Kastur fought the decision. “No, the ornaments will not be returned…” She then asked what [Historian and grandson of MK Gandhi] Rajmohan Gandhi has described as a legal question: “And pray what right have you to my necklace?” The reply was terse. “Was it given to you for your service or mine?” After some argument, Gandhi writes abashedly, “Somehow I succeeded in extorting her consent.”
Work called him and Kastur back to South Africa, to an even harder campaign for Indian South Africans’ rights through what he now called satyagraha. When in 1913, he planned a great march — the first of many marches that were to follow in India — Kastur told him she intended to join. He was unsure. If she, terrified by the hardships in jail, apologised, how, he asked, would he “look the world in the face?” She replied, “If you can endure hardships and so can my boys, why can’t I? I am bound to join the struggle.” Kastur and 15 other South African Indians, including the legendary Valliamma, were arrested and sentenced to three months’ rigorous imprisonment.
This was just the beginning of the struggle that lay ahead of her with her husband’s marches, fasts, talks, rallies and imprisonments ending — the last in Pune, where she died, a fellow prisoner. As before, this time too, she was with him, doing what he was doing, but in her own way and on her own terms.
She was cremated in the palace premises. Gandhi and other inmates, jailed at the palace, went to collect her ashes and there gleamed, intact and unburnt, the pair of bangles she left life with — of plain green glass.
First Published: Sep 17, 2019 01:35 IST